Prices squeeze seafood restaurants

At Clam, there are no scallops.

The prices went “crazy,” says Mike Price, co-owner of the restaurant in Greenwich Village, NY, and so he took them off the menu. In Napa Valley, California, Phil Tessier, the executive chef of a popular place called PRESS, did the same. And in Atlanta, at The Iberian Pig tapas bar, chef Josue Pena didn’t stop at scallops. Alaskan halibut and blue crab are also extinct.

The latter was a killer, Pena said. Crab cakes had become a signature dish. “People were like ‘what’s up?’ But, he said, with the wholesale prices soaring, “the price we had to charge to be profitable was almost insulting.”

For restaurants across the United States, reopening after the covid-19 lockdown has been anything but easy.

They have struggled to rehire enough servers and chefs, often being forced to withhold double-digit pay increases, and have been rocked by cost increases and shortages on all manner of items – packets of condiments to take-out packaging and chicken wings. So this hike in seafood prices, which is part of the larger inflationary push that is making its way through the U.S. economy, only further crushes restaurateurs just when they were supposed to be making money. money as they recover from all those months lost to the pandemic.

Seafood prices rose about 11% in the 12 months to early July compared to the previous period, according to NielsenIQ. Extend the time horizon a bit, Pena says, and the increases in some hard-to-find products are much larger. A pound of halibut, he says, costs $ 28 from the local seafood distributor he buys in Atlanta. Before the pandemic, it was $ 16 at most. And the blue crab went from $ 18 a pound to $ 44. But at least he can find some crab. In Orlando, Florida, High Tide Harry’s co-owner Brennan Heretick had to stop selling crab sticks because wholesalers in the area stopped offering them.

Just like in dozens of other overwhelmed industries in a booming economy, many factors are causing shortages and price increases: ports are congested, there are not enough fishermen, there are not enough fishermen. There are not enough truck drivers and the demand for seafood in restaurants is skyrocketing.

“Distributors used to scramble to get your business,” says Jay Herrington, owner of Fish On Fire, a restaurant a 10-minute drive from Heretick’s. Now, “you don’t get delivery, or it’s late delivery. Sometimes we have to go get it.” It was something he had never seen before. Herrington recently increased entry prices, which range from $ 10 to $ 20, up to $ 3 to offset the higher costs. “There’s just no stopping,” he says.

Herrington’s headache is part of the larger backlog at U.S. ports that has sparked complaints for consumers and businesses in the U.S. economy and is a major factor in the price hikes, according to Gavin Gibbons, vice -President of communications at the National Fisheries Institute. Labor shortages have caused “serious delays,” he said in an email. He estimated that port-related costs are on track to be 20 times higher for group member companies than last year.

Another fundamental problem is the lack of fishermen. When restaurants closed during the pandemic, that meant a key buyer had evaporated, according to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This resulted in financial losses for many members of the industry and forced them to find work in new fields. Plus, most anglers in the United States are over 40 and few young people are entering the field, according to Michael Priebel, director of Keys Fisheries in Marathon, Fla.

“A lot of people got into construction,” he said. “We see fewer and fewer people coming back each year because they get older and fishing becomes more expensive.”

The obstacles don’t stop there. Higher prices for cod, for example, are due to a shortage of shipping containers, according to Sysco, which is one of the world’s largest food distributors and wholesalers. Lobster, meanwhile, has seen a low inventory since covid-19 restrictions in Canada last summer reduced boat crews going to sea for high-season catches, Sysco said in an email. . Supplies are currently replenishing as the Maine season progresses, but prices remain high due to high demand.

Back at High Tide Harry’s in Orlando, Heretick says he’s now struggling to find crab legs as well as the claws he needs for his crab finger dish.

The price of the crabmeat it finds has more than doubled since January. Ditto for lobster. Then he churns out a bunch of other cost increases he’s been a victim of: paper products, alcohol, bamboo cocktail skewers, gloves. He says those last two items are each up 200% or more. Labor costs are also higher. Heretick recently raised cooks up to $ 16 an hour and also handed out raises to hosts and servers.

So far, it has eaten much of the higher costs, choosing to keep prices essentially flat on the menu – which lists the fried oyster dish at $ 19.99 and the prawn and scallop scampi at 24. , $ 99 – while welcoming old customers. He can’t go on like this, however, he says. Last month, High Tide Harry made record revenues and yet Heretick suffered a loss of $ 14,000.

“We hope,” he said, “that when we have to raise prices slightly, everyone will understand that we have done all we can.”

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